College Students With Disabilities Are Protesting Accessibility Barriers On Campus

Published October 28, 2021

Across the country, countless students with disabilities are challenging university administrators to rethink accessibility. As they return to in-person learning after the pandemic or visit the campus for the first time, some students have realized that their schools aren’t as accessible as they should be. This lack of accessibility creates physical and academic barriers for students, some of whom have to change classes or drop out because the school won’t accommodate their needs.

These students are speaking out for themselves and for future learners with disabilities. Here are the challenges they face.

UNC students with disabilities feel neglected

At the University of North Carolina, many students with disabilities have noticed that the school isn’t living up to their expectations for accessibility. Their first few months on campus have been riddled with challenges that are largely ignored by university leadership.

Eleanor Bolton is a first-year student who uses a power wheelchair. She has encountered multiple areas on campus where administrators have not considered the needs of students with disabilities.

“In some areas, I can navigate pretty well but in other areas, I have to go 30 minutes out of my way compared to my able-bodied peers because there’s not a ramp or something like that,” says Bolton.

Another student who uses a wheelchair, Laura Saavedra Forero, says she spent the first few weeks of campus life moving classes and navigating the limited accessibility options available to her. She is frustrated by the housing at UNC, which provided her with limited options and accommodations on the top floor.

“I live on the fourth floor and I do not know why,” says Saavedra. “For fire drills and stuff, I’m basically stuck and no one has quite told me the plan (to evacuate) or has executed it.”

This isn’t just an academic issue, it is a safety issue.

Virginia Tech students experience similar accessibility issues

UNC isn’t the only university where students with disabilities are having a difficult time participating in academic life. Many Virginia Tech students feel like the school administration isn’t willing to listen to their requests.

Sarah Bernat broke her foot in August and uses a knee scooter. When she left for class, she made it about 300 yards before she couldn’t move any farther because of a lack of ramps and accessible navigation options. Bernat spent six weeks trying to coordinate with different student services organizations but eventually dropped a few of her classes because she couldn’t get to her lectures.

As a part-time student, she no longer qualified for housing, but the school wouldn’t release her from her student housing contract.

Casey Anne Brimmer, a graduate student, and Ph.D. candidate, also experienced a lack of help from the school’s administration. Brimmer noticed that the door closest to the accessible parking spaces was locked in the building they were teaching in, which meant they had to either walk down a flight of stairs or walk around the entire building. Brimmer was told they would need a key to access the lift, even though it was a public building.

“I was told if I was concerned about it I should take a medical leave, I told them I’m capable of the work I’m just concerned about being on campus,” says Brimmer.

Schools grapple with history against accessibility

Both UNC and Virginia Tech face the same accessibility challenges. They are historic schools with buildings that have been around for centuries. These buildings weren’t made with the ADA in mind (a law that is only 30 years old) which means many of them aren’t accessible.

Pace Sagester, UNC’s media relations manager, says all new construction needs to meet ADA standards. However, because UNC is the oldest public university in the country, many of the historic buildings are difficult to change. The school does what it can to accommodate students while still preserving historic integrity.

A Virginia Tech spokesperson provided a similar response. They said ADA accessibility was not around 150 years ago but the university has taken great strides to update the structures to meet the needs of students.

However, this isn’t just an issue of historic preservation. At UNC, Eleanor Bolton explains that many of the accessible services on campus, like automatic doors and push buttons, either don’t work or aren’t always available. This inconsistency causes anxiety for students with disabilities, who won’t know whether part of campus is accessible until they arrive at the building. At Virginia Tech, the administration continues to ignore students with disabilities who are trying to advocate for themselves or stick to one-size-fits-all policies – that really mean one-size-fits-none.

Universities need to do better

Colleges and universities cater to thousands (if not tens of thousands) of students, faculty, and staff. They are small cities where young adults study, live, and play. Along with UNC and Virginia Tech, several other colleges have faced criticism for a lack of accessible accommodation in recent years. Both public and private universities ranging from Princeton to the University of Minnesota have come under scrutiny for only doing the bare minimum to meet ADA requirements, which often leaves students without the support they need. 

“A student might be disabled at one college but not another, based on how they use documentation of students’ disabilities,” says Wendy Harbour, associate executive director for programs and development at the Association on Higher Education And Disability. “Or one campus may offer tutoring or special programs for students with some disabilities, and others don’t.”

This forces students with disabilities to limit their college choices based on where they feel they will be accommodated. Instead of prioritizing colleges that serve their majors or that create positive student experiences, they need to put their disability first and their career and social needs second – something students without disabilities would never have to do.

If colleges really want to serve students with disabilities, they need to look beyond the ADA. While this law serves as a starting point for accessibility, student needs are incredibly diverse.

Students are starting to speak up on how their colleges can become more accessible. It’s up to the school administrators to listen and act.

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